The holiday of Tish’ah B’Av is commemorated on the ninth (tish’ah) day of the Jewish calendar month of Av. It is a day of mourning, remembering both of the destructions of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. The first came prior to Israel’s Babylonian captivity in 586 BCE (BC) and 70 CE (AD). Because the destruction of the Temple does not hold significance in some of the liberal strands of modern Judaism, for some, the day becomes a time to remember all of the sufferings and tragedies that have befallen the Jews over the years.
Tish’ah B’av is the most solemn of days in Judaism. The ceremonies proceed from sundown to sundown. In the synagogues the book of Lamentations is read in a woeful chant. Kinot, dirges that were written during the Middle Ages, are bellowed. Participants are given low stools to sit on, a practice that is used when mourning the dead or sitting shiva. Passages from the books of Jeremiah and Job are read, along with some Psalms and portions of the Talmud which deal with the destructions of the Temple.
The more conservative and traditional threads of Judaism will place the greatest emphasis upon the Temple. Many will begin a period of semi-mourning three weeks before Tish’ah B’Av. It was thought that on that day in 586 BCE (BC) that the Babylonians first entered into Jerusalem and wrecked havoc in the Temple courtyards.
During the entire time, traditional Jews will cease holding weddings, festive celebrations, or cutting their hair. From the first of Av on, no meat or wine is to be consumed, no new clothing purchased, and no shaving is allowed. During this time alterations are made to many other daily functions, including mourning and burial.
For those of the Jewish faith that are more liberal, the day has faded in importance as to its ritual observance and remembrance of the Temple. Instead, tragic events of Jewish sufferings and loss – like the massacres of the Crusades and the Holocaust – are contemplated. The day stands as a memorial to the suffering and injustice that still occurs in our world.
Dates for Tish'ah B'av
(begins sundown, evening before)
The Scriptures record that the first Temple was constructed in 957BCE by King Solomon. The Temple became the focal point of the Jewish sacrificial system and worship, replacing the Tabernacle which had been used since the days of Moses in the Sinai Desert. The first total destruction of the Temple occurred prior to the Babylonian Captivity in 586BCE
Jeremiah and other prophets had warned the people of the impending doom from Babylon, not only for the Temple, but their entire homeland. Judah, the southern tribes of Israel, had lived under a false sense of security for years. They believed that either God would protect them because of the presence of the Temple, or that Egypt would protect them to keep Babylon from their own borders.
Nebuchadnezzar came with scores of troops from the north and invaded Judean territories. By the early part of the summer, the king’s armies had surrounded the city of Jerusalem. After cutting off trade and supplies, the Israelites were weakened physically and spiritually. On the ninth day of the month of Tammuz the walls of the city were penetrated by the Babylonian soldiers.
Within a month, these powerful forces had destroyed all pockets of Israeli resistance. Traditions in the Talmud indicate that 940,000 Jews were killed in the days leading up to the siege of Jerusalem. It is possible that over a million more were killed inside the gates of the city, with the remaining survivors marched to slave camps in Babylon.
At sunset on the beginning of the ninth day of the month of Av, Nebuchadnezzar set fire to the Temple. By the end of the day, the Temple was completely destroyed. Writers of the Talmud told the story that as the Temple was burning, a group of young priests gathered with the keys to the Sanctuary in their hands. The young leaders cried out to God, confessing that they had not been faithful custodians of God’s house. With that they threw the keys into the air with all their might. Tradition says that a hand emerged from the clouds and snatched the keys from the air. The young priests then allowed the fires to consume them.
According to Ezra, construction of the second Temple was started under the authority of Cyrus of Persia, after the fall of Babylon. The work began in 538BCE and was completed 23 years later on the third day of Adar under the reign of Darius the Great. The Jewish governor at the time, Zerubbabel, dedicated the structure that was not nearly as lavish or extravagant at the first.
The Temple barely escaped destruction again in 332BCE when the Jewish people refused to worship Alexander the Great as god. After his death, Judea and the Temple came under the rule of the Ptolemies. During this period, the Jews enjoyed many liberties and the place the Temple played in the lives of people was strengthened. When the Ptolemaic reign was ended by Antiochus III of the Seleucids in 198BCE and strong attempts were made to Hellenize the Jews and their worship. About ten years later, Antiochus died with many of his plans left unaccomplished.
His son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, came to the throne about a year and a half later with the desire to accomplish his father’s goals. The Jews rebelled and Antiochus answered back with an incredible show of cruelty and force. He outlawed religious observances of the Sabbath and the practice of circumcision. He erected a statue of Zeus in the middle of the Temple courts and instructed Greek priests to sacrifice pigs on their altars.
In 167BCE the Jews rose up and fought for their freedom in what became known as the Maccabean revolt. Judas Maccabaeus oversaw the rededication of the Temple in 164BCE an event celebrated as a part of the festival of Hanukkah.
Herod the Great began a long renovation plan for the Temple, taking decades to accomplish. This Temple thrived until the Romans laid siege against the city of Jerusalem in 70CE when it was utterly destroyed. Ironically or providentially, the fall of the second Temple took place on the ninth day of Av as well. Battles continued for another sixty years when finally the Jews were driven from the area.
Customs and Rituals
The mourning and fasting that is associated with this day commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples, both of which occurred on the ninth day of Av, about 655 years apart. The three weeks leading up to Tish’ah B’Av are known as “The Three Weeks” and the days leading up to the event are known as “The Nine Days.”
According to the Mishnah (Taanit 4:6), five events of tragedy and importance occurred on the ninth of Av which deserve fasting.
First, the twelve spies who were sent by Moses to scout the land of Canaan returned from their mission. Only two of the spies brought news of encouragement and trust in God’s ability to lead the people to victory. Because the majority report caused the people to panic, God punished the entire generation of people, keeping them from entering into the land. Because of their lack of faith, God proclaimed that the date would be one for crying and misfortune for their descendants (Numbers 13).
The first Temple built by King Solomon was destroyed by the Babylonians after a two-year siege.
The second Temple built under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah was destroyed by the Romans, scattering the people of Israel throughout the world and away from their homeland.
The Romans crushed Bar Kokhba’s revolt, killing over 100,000 Jews.
- Roman commander Turnus Rufus plowed the site of the Temple and the surrounding area under.
Over a dozen other tragic events have taken place on this date, including Himmler’s formal announcement of Nazi approval of the capture and slaughter of European Jews during World War II.
Tish’ah B’Av shares customs similar to Yom Kippur. Five specific prohibitions of pleasurable things are associated with both of the days. During these festivals, Jews are prescribed to have no eating or drinking; no washing or bathing; no application of creams or oils; no wearing of leather shoes; and no marital relations. Restrictions are waived in the case of health issues. Since many cases differ, a rabbi should be consulted for correct practice. Ritual washings up to the knuckles is permitted. Often washing to cleanse mud from the body is also permitted.
The study of the Torah is also prohibited on Tish’ah B’Av because that would be considered a spiritual pleasure. Exceptions are made for the study of the books of Job, Lamentations and portions of Jeremiah.
Work is to be avoided on this day. Electricity is to be used sparingly; candles should provide the only lighting for ceremonies and services. Low seating similar to shiva is encouraged. Sleep should at least be without pillow and is encouraged to be on the floor.
Funerals and Mourning during Tish'ah B'av
Jewish teaching provides specific guidelines for how the deceased should be properly mourned by the family through defined Periods of Mourning in Judaism.
The Jewish burial usually takes place within a couple of days after the death. It is usually a time of stress and busyness for the family, as many decisions and details surrounding the funeral must be considered. A telephone call relaying personal condolences would be welcomed.
Public viewing of the body is against Jewish law and tradition. There is no equivalent to the wake or funeral visitation. Today Jewish funerals are held at a funeral home, synagogue, cemetery building or graveside. Attending a funeral is a demonstration of care and concern for the surviving family and respect for the deceased. Invitations to a funeral are rarely offered, but friends are always encouraged to attend. In Judaism accompanying the family to the gravesite is one of the highest forms of kindness.
After the burial, the first period of mourning begins. Shiva (meaning “seven”) consists of seven days of mourning during which family members remain in their home. During shiva the family would stay home from work, refrain from public appearances, and not conduct any business transactions. Friends and family members would reach out to the bereaved by visiting the home to offer comfort and support.
The solemn nature of Tish’ah B’Av would not disrupt the mourning traditions of shiva. However, during the holiday, it would be permissible for the family to attend congregational services, but they should not participate in any leadership role.
Because of the sensitive nature of the time of loss, a Rabbi should be consulted for proper procedures for mourning during the holiday, particularly in complicated situations. The rabbi will take into account the circumstances, traditions and Scripture and offer guidance.
Remembering Loved Ones during Tish'ah B'av
Since Tish’ah B’Av serves as a day of mourning, there is a prescribed time to commemorate, honor and reflect on the destruction of the Temple, as well as the sufferings and pain of the Jewish people. The Yizkor (also Yiskor) is a special memorial service held four times a year. Yizkor is the Hebrew word for “remembrance.” This dedicated part of the service is considered one of the most recognized times to remember the deceased.
Because Jewish festivals contain moments of remembrance and family, the Yizkor during Tish’ah B’Av is a perfect time to honor and commemorate deceased family members. Lasting tributes such as contributions to charities, hospitals or hospices, synagogues or other organizations provide meaningful memorials for departed loved ones.
The tradition of inscribing one’s name in the book of life is a common occurrence in the Jewish faith. Families may light a yizkor candle, plant a tree in Israel, or dedicate a name plaque. Other meaningful and appropriate ways to memorialize a loved one include the creation of a Plaque and Memory page online through the National Jewish Memorial Wall (NJMW.org). The inclusion on a memorial or yahrzeit wall is a meaningful way to show honor and respect for the deceased.